Previous Contents Next

Just How Big Is Our Genre?

On Wednesday March 14th 2007, the Phoenix Science Fiction Group presented a discussion entitled: Just How Big Is Our Genre?

The theme was defined by three questions that were posed by the panel moderator. Here are my answers to those questions.

Question 1

How is SF bounded? What are the characteristics that you can use to say something is SF or not? What are the characteristics you cannot use?

I'm don't want to get involved in the definition game too early. I don't want to start by setting boundaries or defining characteristics. That's a sterile game which far too quickly turns into nit-picking and hair splitting. It leads nowhere useful. What I'm going to do instead is nibble at the idea from a lot of different angles in my answers to all three of the questions that have been posed here tonight. And that probably means I won't get anywhere significant until somewhere towards the end. So just bear with me, if you will…

However I will play the definition game a little bit. Here's my favourite definition, and I'm sure that every single one of you will immediately recognise its universal truth and its general applicability. I defy any of you to disagree with a syllable of it. Peter Nicholls, he of SF encyclopaedia fame, once defined SF as:

…speculation, whether based on established scientific facts or on logical pseudo-facts consistent with the framework of the fiction in question, involving smelly green pimply aliens furiously raping or eating, or both, beautiful naked bare-breasted chicks, covering them in slime, red, oozing, living slime, dribbling from every horrific orifice, squeezing out between bulbous pulpy lips onto the sensuous velvety skin of the writhing sweating slave-girls, their bodies cut and bruised by knotted whips brandished by giant blond vast-biceped androids called Simon, and written in the Gothic mode.

Brian Aldiss also had a nifty, though somewhat useless definition. He defined SF as "nemesis clobbered by hubris" which is very clever, quite witty and almost completely pointless. He discusses it at enormously tedious length in Trillion Year Spree, his monumental critical history of science fiction.

Damon Knight, I think it was (I've not been able to verify this) once famously defined SF as being "…the stuff you find on the library shelves labelled science fiction".

Once upon a time, this was actually a very useful definition because there was a fairly general agreement about what SF was and there was very little of the hair splitting that we suffer from today. It was all really very clear cut, and therefore the librarians knew where to file the books and the fans knew where to go to find the good stuff, the stuff that turned you on, cerebrally speaking. Everyone was happy.

But the definition became less useful as time went on and the reason why it became less useful is the reason why we are even debating the question tonight. You see, SF started to spread outside the narrowly defined boundaries that that caused it to be filed on specially labelled shelves, and although we do still find it there on those shelves, we are starting more and more to find it in other places as well. So now the definition is largely useless, in any practical sense.

These days the only definition I feel comfortable with is the definition that says "Science Fiction is the stuff I point at and say: 'That's science fiction'".

I think that one is down to Damon Knight as well.

Let's face it, we all know the real stuff when we see it even if at times we might be hard pressed to say exactly why something is (or is not) SF. And if that makes the field subjective rather than objective, well so be it.

Tonight we have been asked if the genre is bounded. I don't think it is and I don't even think it has to be. Indeed I'm not even sure that the question makes any sense if you try and pull it apart and analyse it. SF just is. It's the stuff I point to. And these days it's absolutely everywhere.

John Campbell, the editor of Astounding (later Analog) had, as was usual with him, an over-exaggerated approach to the problem of fitting SF into its place in the artistic spectrum.

"This is science fiction," he would say, stretching his arms wide. "It encompasses everything from before the universe existed until the moment that it ceases to exist and even beyond."

"And this is ordinary, mundane fiction," and he would hold his fingers an inch apart. "It deals with life as lived by a small group of people on an insignificant planet over a very short period of time, perhaps a few hundred years, no more."

And then he'd draw his conclusion: "Ordinary fiction is a small subset of science fiction, a special case of no great interest."

I paraphrase, but that's what he meant.

Once upon a time I think you could fairly have mocked him for that conclusion, particularly given the extremely crude and unsophisticated naivety of a lot of the science fiction of that era.

But nowadays it's starting to sound more and more sensible, if you strip the hyperbole away. You can begin to make a case for it, though I suspect it's more accurately the reverse of what Campbell was suggesting. I think it's far more the case that ordinary fiction has begun to recognise that it has a much larger playground to play in than its creators previously thought. Mainstream fiction is beginning to lose the insular, navel-gazing and incestuous time-bound and society-bound constraints that once it put upon itself, and it is starting to look outwards where once it looked inwards. Therefore, whether it likes it or not, SF now has to compare itself with the best of contemporary fiction because in many cases it IS the best of contemporary fiction. Suddenly we have a whole new yardstick to measure ourselves against; and that can only be a good thing. Perhaps we can lose the crudity and unsophisticated naivety. Perhaps we can start to grow up.

And that means that nowadays I feel that I can legitimately point here, there and everywhere and say "that's science fiction" – or at the very least perhaps I can say "that shows science fiction influences". Once upon a time I wouldn't even have been able to say that.

Here's a real example, before we leave the question and move on to the next one.

Margaret Atwood is a mainstream novelist. She has won mainstream award after mainstream award. The Booker prize, who knows what. She's written several novels that you and I would recognise as pure SF, The Handmaid's Tale for example or Oryx and Crake.

Of course the literati would have us believe that her books cannot possibly be science fiction because they are "good books", they are "literary books".

Atwood herself would agree, to a certain extent. She is on record as having said that science fiction stories are all about talking squids in outer space. Since not one of her novels contains any talking squids at all, they cannot possibly be science fiction novels and therefore the literati are correct. She does not write science fiction. It's a conclusion that cannot be argued with. The logic is impeccable.

However there is no doubt that Margaret Atwood's tongue is so far into her cheek that she probably looks quite facially deformed. And jolly good show! say I.

As far as I am concerned, her books meet the only definition that I am willing to allow into this discussion. I can point to her novels and say quite firmly, that's SF. And who are you, and who is she to tell me that I'm wrong?

Of course, if you want to restrict yourself just to talking squids and allow nothing else into your world view, that's up to you. But I've got a much wider view of things than that, and so has Margaret Atwood, even though she would have you believe otherwise when there's a "Q" in the month.

Talking squids, however they manifest themselves, are just too limiting to tell meaningful stories about any more. SF exhausted that topic decades ago, though you wouldn't think so if the only place you looked for it was the shelves labelled science fiction. Talking squids in space everywhere, metaphorically speaking, in book after tedious book.

So: Quod erat demostrandum.



There are many delivery mechanisms for SF. Many "media" if you like. Just how many media has SF colonised? Which ones does it dominate? Which ones does it not do so well in?

Delivery mechanisms?

We're talking about fiction here – science fiction admittedly, but anything that can deliver fiction can also deliver science fiction. That almost goes without saying. Anything that can a tell a story is a valid way of telling a science fiction story. Traditionally that was always the printed medium (or perhaps we listened to a bard telling the tales in pre-literate eras).

But that was then and this is now. And now we have many more media available to us than we have ever had before. Today we can tell a story in prose and in verse, in pictures that move and pictures that stay still. We can do it with music and perhaps even with sculpture. Anything, anything at all that our senses can interact with is a valid medium for fiction.

And that means we should be able to find fiction, and therefore science fiction, in books of prose and books of verse, in comic books and cartoons, in movies and television shows and in art galleries and concerts.

And I truly believe that we can. Let's look at some examples.

Let's ignore the obvious stuff, the equivalent in whatever medium we choose of "the things on the shelf labelled science fiction". We can all list science fiction books, TV programmes and movies ad nauseam. I'd like to look in odder places, but I will come back to the printed medium and to movies towards the end, though from a direction that might surprise you.

Let's start with television. Most of us have one, most of us watch it and most of us probably get up for a pee when the adverts come on. In some ways that's a mistake; some of the best science fiction on television will be found in the adverts and many of the adverts are significantly more sophisticated than the often extremely trashy programs they interrupt.

Babies drive cars, cars transform themselves into snakes and tigers and robots, cars move at high speeds with nobody driving them. Insects discuss genocide and fly in terror from the insect spray. Cats make informed choices of food, dogs deliver pizza. Cat and dog newsreaders give us up to the minute broadcasts about the successes of flea treatments and, in another time zone, cats and dogs ride into an old wild west town and have "gun" battles with the black-hat-wearing bad guys who are, of course, fleas. Emergency squads deliver beer to people under stress, gods hurl lightning bolts at fantastically impervious garage doors that are obviously protected with force fields. We can watch enzymes munching on dirty laundry, we can see germs die in real time as someone gargles with a mouthwash. There's a man with a flip top head who can brush his teeth at angles the rest of us can only dream about. And the world is made of chocolate and people eat cars, hairstyles and each other. A bit sick, really – but that's what too much chocolate does for you!

It's all science fiction because these adverts require us to suspend our disbelief and accept as real something that is patently unreal. None of the things I've mentioned bear any resemblance to reality and yet all of them are nightly occurrences on our screens and we simply accept them unquestioningly. We know that they are not real; that they are not even meant to be real; but nevertheless we also know that they illustrate, generally metaphorically, some important aspect of the product which completely defines that product and gives us a reason for buying it. Science fiction, it seems, has become very important in the dialogue between manufacturers, advertisers and customers. After all, they wouldn't use it if it didn't work.

Perhaps that's a good definition of SF that we could have used in Question 1:

Science Fiction is the presentation of metaphor as realism.

Hey, it works for me.

Other media can be just as valid. Perhaps you don't think of looking in an art gallery or listening to music as something that can deliver the science fiction experience to you. But you'd be missing out on a lot if you felt that way.

I think the surrealists would have enjoyed SF, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that people such as Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte were SF fans. I have no idea whether or not they were, but it seems to me that there is something quintessentially science fictional about their pictures. Dali's The Persistence Of Memory with its limp, melting watches draped over trees would have felt completely at home on the cover of a magazine from the golden age. And what else but science fiction can explain Magritte's almost photographically realistic pictures of a train zooming out of a fireplace, or a shattered window whose glass shards still contain images of the scene outside?

And I defy anybody to watch the 1929 surreal movie Un Chien Andalou without spotting science fictional themes in it. Though this statement does assume that you manage to sit through the opening scene when the razor blade slices open a woman's eyeball, without throwing up and leaving the cinema.

The movie is best described as a succession of scenes, for there is no doubt that it does not tell a coherent story. But when was coherence either necessary or sufficient to define SF?

A man's hand has a hole in the palm from which ants emerge; a blind woman (possibly the lady from the opening scene) pokes at a severed hand in the street with her cane before being knocked down by a car; a man drags two grand pianos containing dead and rotting donkeys, the tablets of the Ten Commandments, and two priests; and a woman's armpit hair attaches itself to a man's face. Sounds like science fiction to me – it certainly isn't realism!

Similar claims can be made about Alain Resnais' 1961 movie Last Year In Marienbad, though it owes a lot more to the anti-novel literary theories of Alain Robbe-Grillet than it does to the surrealists. Nevertheless the rather fanciful way that it plays tricks with time and space place it, to my mind at least, firmly in the SF camp. Brian Aldiss agrees with me; he's said a lot of complimentary things about it over the years, though given that Aldiss' extraordinarily dull and almost unreadable novel Report On Probability A is itself an homage to Robbe-Grillet, that isn't totally surprising.

It seems to me that about the only place we don't find science fiction in movies and TV is in the movies and TV programmes that advertise themselves as science fiction. Star Wars springs to mind, likewise Star Trek, The Matrix and Serenity. No talking squids in any of them, and no metaphors masquerading as reality either. Just pedestrian predictability. I expect a lot more from my science fiction than that.

Even music can conjure up the authentic SF spine-tingle. Forget all that nonsense of Hawkwind singing songs written by Michael Moorcock about Elric, ignore Blue Oyster Cult's tedious rhythms, or even Pink Floyd wittering on about setting the controls for the heart of the sun. None of that really does anything very much for me; again it's all rather obvious stuff – but Bach's almost mathematical progressions turn me on every time. They give me mental pictures of stars and cold distances. Actually pretty much anything from the baroque era sounds like science fiction to me. But unlike the other stuff I've been talking about, I can't give you any reasons at all. This one comes down simply to emotion, feeling and the almost tragic sound of music in a minor key. You'll have to explore that one yourself.

Cartoons can be a rich source of science fiction imagery. Lots of talking squids in Gary Larsen's work. And Calvin and Hobbes is pure science fiction from beginning to end.

I don't feel qualified to discuss comic books or collections of verse – my knowledge and experience of them is almost non-existent. However I see no reason why SF should not be flourishing there. I hear good reports of Sandman and I do know that a century or so ago Tennyson flirted with the genre in his epic poem Idylls Of The King. T. S. Eliot uses a lot of fantasy imagery in The Waste Land, and I also retain a certain fondness for Eliot's The Hollow Men which, among other things, envisages the world ending:

…not with a bang but a whimper

Very science fictional, if you ask me. But outside of that, I plead ignorance.

I'm also not that well informed about sculpture, though I do see SF-like tendencies in Henry Moore's huge abstract artefacts, however I'm not completely sure why. Some of his sculptures remind me of the diagrams I used to pore over in my quantum mechanics and thermodynamic textbooks. So perhaps that's it. I don't know – I'd like to talk more about this, but I don't think I can.

I suspect that SF does not really fit comfortably with music and sculpture.

For me, the principal mechanism for delivering SF has always been, and will always be, the book. Novel, short story, I don't really mind. The short story, of course, is almost dead as a literary medium. Hardly anybody writes short stories these days because there's almost nowhere you can publish them. Except in the SF magazines. So almost any short story you come across is pretty much guaranteed to be SF. There's an easy definition of real science fiction for you – science fiction is any piece of prose fiction comprising 10,000 words or less. As a rule of thumb, it's probably not a bad one.

The novel, though, is flourishing as never before. Bookshop shelves groan under the weight and almost every day new novels appear and crowd out the old ones. Even as we speak, a new bookshop is opening in down town Wellington. Surely that says something about the strength of the market.

All these bookshops have shelves marked science fiction and not surprisingly those shelves are full of science fiction books. But if you restrict yourself to only those shelves, you are missing out on a lot. I've already mentioned Margaret Attwood, and she's by no means alone. An enormous number of contemporary novelists are starting to use SF ideas in their works. Kate Atkinson is another Booker prize winner whose novels are stuffed full of SF references. Indeed, she even mentions several SF authors by name in some of her novels thus proving that she has more than a nodding acquaintance with the field.

Iain Banks is a literary phenomenon par excellence. Fay Weldon once called him "…the great white hope of English literature". I'm not sure what that means, but it is obviously a compliment. We all know that he writes rather mediocre SF under the transparent pseudonym Iain M. Banks, but putting that to one side, his mainstream novels are often indistinguishable from SF because of the sheer richness of the science fictional references that litter almost every page.

And of course let us not forget Audrey Niffenegger, she of the unspellable and almost unpronounceable surname, whose 2004 novel The Time Traveller's Wife shot to the top of the best seller lists, won pretty much every literary prize going, dazzled the critics on both sides of the Atlantic and propelled her name to literary stardom.

And yet it's a pure science fiction novel, probably one of the best time travel stories I've ever read. John Campbell would have been proud to publish it in Analog. She has perfect control over her ideas, she never puts a foot wrong, she never flinches from describing (and avoiding) the classic time travel paradoxes. There is no way she could have written a novel as perfect as this one without having soaked up all of the golden age science fiction she could get her hands on.

Also, to turn the subject slightly on its head for a moment, The Guardian recently reviewed a science fiction novel by Tricia Sullivan. The reviewer was extremely enthusiastic about it; his praise was unstinting. And the conclusion he drew was that Tricia Sullivan was wasted as a genre novelist. He was certain that she had the talent to be widely accepted in the mainstream. But for me, the interesting part of the review lay in what the reviewer didn't say. At no time did he make any suggestion at all that she should change the kind of thing she was writing. He was perfectly happy with the science fiction subjects she explored – all he seemed to want to do was take the label away so that her books would not be filed on what he considered to be the wrong set of shelves. Now that's acceptance.

I could give other examples, but they don't add any new insights, so I'll stop there. Instead, I'm almost ready to give you another definition of science fiction.

Science fiction is what you find on the shelves that aren't labelled science fiction.

I'm becoming more and more convinced that the best, the most exciting science fiction is now being written by mainstream novelists. Or, to put it another way in order to fit the theme of this discussion, science fiction has stopped being a narrow, specialist genre accessible only to geeks, nerds and people who can't get laid. These days it has broadened out and escaped from the ghetto. It's everywhere and, more importantly, it is starting to be understood by and accepted by pretty much everybody.

As far as I am concerned, that can only be a good thing.

We started by asking ourselves how big our genre was. I'd suggest it is actually as big as you want or need it to be. There's no need to limit it with labels.

However, given the fact that we often do attempt to hang a label on it, it is clear that some people prefer the genre to be small and clearly defined. Perhaps they need the security of a closed in environment; maybe they feel comfortable in the ghetto and uncomfortable out of it. I don't know. But whatever the reason, I would consider such people to be artistic agoraphobes who need the reassurance of labels on their shelves. They need the security blanket of objective definitions. Subjectivity scares them; it is far too vague.

Talking squids are just perfect for artistic agoraphobes.


Question 3

Just because something is potentially within the boundaries of SF, that does not mean it is necessarily dealt with. What are the areas that SF does not deal with but could?

By now I've sort of argued myself into a position where I think I'm saying there are two kinds of science fiction. The stuff that calls itself science fiction and the stuff that doesn't. In other words you can still go to the shelves marked science fiction, or the movies that are labelled science fiction with a fair expectation that you will get some sort of science fiction in return. But my answers to the last two questions have made it clear that science fiction ideas and science fiction views of the world are no longer exclusively part of the SF ghetto. They've become such common coin that now we see them everywhere and, in many cases, I believe it is quite legitimate to call the things that we see science fiction, even if the publishers or the film makers or whoever is responsible for the material loudly insist that it isn't.

In other words we are back again to examining the implications of "science fiction is the stuff I point at and say that's science fiction". So in order to try and identify the areas that SF does or does not concern itself with, I think it is only fair to consider both the stuff that is marketed as science fiction and the stuff that isn't as completely separate cases.

For several years now I've been thinking that the stuff that we find on the metaphorical science fiction shelves has become progressively more insular, more conservative and more than a little bit dull. Much of it appears to be regressing to the naivety and shallowness of the 1930s (though perhaps with better sentence structure).

It wasn't always thus. There was a time, not so very long ago, when SF concerned itself with, if you'll excuse the pomposity, the human condition. In other words we got stories that were actually about something meaningful: love, death, politics, philosophy, religion and the weather. SF writers and film makers seemed to have woken up to the fact that the "metaphor as reality" that is so characteristic of science fiction would allow them to speculate about important things in ways that simply weren't possible in more mainstream media. So, for example, on more than one occasion, we find Arthur C. Clarke saying of the movie 2001 that: "MGM doesn't know this yet, but they're paying for the first $10,000,000 religious movie."

In many ways it seemed that SF from the mid-1950s onwards really was starting to concern itself with everything that fell inside John Campbell's rather sweeping definition. So to that extent I suppose that we can forgive Campbell his enthusiasm.

But now things seem to have changed again and SF has fallen back on itself. These days it appears to be very inward looking and is often about almost nothing at all except possibly vast spectacle, gory thud and blunder and semi-coherent, pseudo-scientific musing.

And so we get lots of lots of interchangeable space opera, military pornography and thinly disguised essays from the borders of physics, with dialogue. We've also got the new century's equivalent of Dianetics; at least in terms of its religious appeal to the masses, coupled with an astonishing arrogance and ignorance on the part of its high priests. It's the Singularity religion preached by Vernor Vinge and his disciples; and it generates a lot of propaganda masquerading as fiction that lurks balefully on the shelves. Almost none of this material has any great intrinsic interest and it certainly has no wide appeal. Probably it has no staying power either. I suspect it will disappear into the mists of time just like the 1930s SF that it emulates so well has vanished from our lives. When did you last see a book by Neil R. Jones or S. P. Meek on the bookshop shelves?

In its early years science fiction was often categorised as a literature for children because it had nothing within it but very childish concerns. It appealed strongly to the immature and to the shallow thinkers. That changed with time, and in its heyday SF was an astonishingly mature and sophisticated genre. But nowadays it has regressed and seems again to be almost empty of intellectual content. By and large it has become again a literature for children.

However the mainstream, by which I mean things that don't have the SF label but which nevertheless exhibit such strong SF influences that we may as well call them SF, is still very much concerned with trying to say something meaningful about the world. The mainstream has always had this as its primary concern, of course, and that's why its practitioners used to sneer so much at the SF ghetto.

But over the years there has been a sea change; and now the willingness of a new generation to adopt science fictional techniques and viewpoints means that the artists who might once have made their career by producing things with an SF label on them have instead made a conscious choice to work outside the genre. If Audrey Niffenegger was twenty years younger she'd have made her name in the pages of Analog or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and her novels would have been published by Ace or DAW. I don't think she'd have had any other path available to her. Nowadays, because she has got other choices, she has very sensibly chosen the path that leads to prizes, kudos and big money. And who can blame her?

So let me rephrase the opening question as a statement instead of a question, and let me emphasise my point by over-stating and slightly exaggerating my conclusion:

Science fiction per se has become a very narrow, closed in field which seldom actually deals with subjects of any great interest any more. But mainstream fiction with SF overtones is now very wide ranging and covers all the subject areas that you could ever possibly want to concern yourself with. It is in the mainstream that science fiction is alive and well and flourishing. All that's left inside the SF ghetto are the artists who are overly obsessed with small ideas like talking squids. And as a result, SF sometimes seems tired and ultimately rather boring.

Perhaps the mainstream has now embraced all the things that John Campbell once claimed as being the domain of science fiction.

Previous Contents Next